Let me start by wishing you a happy new year. May it bless you with health, wealth and happiness. I decided not to carry the series on seeds and grains over into the new year. I want us to start the year on a clean slate.
Permit me to share some stories with you before I plunge into the main discussion. In 2011, I woke up one morning with an excruciating pain in one of my wrists. I sought medical attention and the diagnosis came as carpal tunnel syndrome (it is also called pinched nerve). I read through the pack of the medication I was given to see its components and I was shocked when I saw vitamins B1, B2 and B12. I was angry that my doctor prescribed “ordinary” vitamins for the pain of such magnitude. The second story is credited to my father. He told me about one of our family friends whose daughter had paralysis and doctors found out she was deficient in one of the B vitamins needed by a part of the brain to function properly. That B vitamin was administered on her and she overcame the paralysis!
This series is meant to open our eyes to the importance of vitamins in our wellness. I will talk about their benefits, signs that you are deficient in them and the food sources you can get them from. I am sure that as we proceed, you will not call vitamins “ordinary” again. I deliberate did not include the name of the medication given to me for the carpal tunnel syndrome because when it comes to the use of multivitamins, many people are guilty of self-medication and I do not want to encourage it.
The value of eating certain foods to maintain health was recognised long before vitamins were identified. The ancient Egyptians knew that feeding liver to a person may help with night blindness; an illness now known to be caused by a vitamin A deficiency. Vitamins were discovered (identified) between 1913 and 1948. Starting from 1935, commercially produced tablets of yeast-extract vitamin B complex and semi-synthetic vitamin C became available. This was followed in the 1950s by the mass production and marketing of vitamin supplements including multivitamins to prevent vitamin deficiencies.
Food fortification is the process of adding micronutrients (essential trace elements and vitamins) to food as a public health policy which aims to reduce the number of people with dietary deficiencies within a population. Staple foods of a region can lack particular nutrients due to the soil of the region or from inherent inadequacy of a normal diet. Addition of micronutrients to staples and condiments can prevent large-scale deficiency diseases in these cases.
As defined by the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, fortification refers to “the practice of deliberately increasing the content of an essential micronutrient like vitamins and minerals in a food, irrespective of whether the nutrients were originally in the food before processing or not so as to improve the nutritional quality of the food supply and to provide a public health benefit with minimal risk to health.”
The Food Fortification Initiative lists all countries in the world that conduct fortification programmes and within each country what nutrients are added to which foods.
In Nigeria, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture has successfully developed provitamin A cassava varieties. The flesh is yellow instead of the usual white colour of cassava. It is meant to address the adverse health effects of vitamin A deficiency.
Vitamins are protective substances that are essential for our bodily functions. They build up the immune-system and protect from diseases. Except for vitamins D and K, our body itself does not naturally produce all the vitamins we need. To get our daily dose of these nutrients, we need to eat certain foods. There are 13 kinds of vitamins and they can be divided into two categories – fat-soluble vitamins and water-soluble vitamins. Fat-soluble vitamins (like vitamins A, D, E and K) are found in foods that are high in fats such as meat, fish, milk and eggs. They are also present in leafy and green vegetables. Water-soluble vitamins include different kinds of B vitamins like B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12 and C-vitamins.
Why do we need vitamins? Without them, our bodies would not be able to perform vital tasks such as converting food into energy, building and maintaining bones, teeth, muscle, skin, blood and hair, and keeping our brain, eyes, nervous and immune systems in good working order.
“If your body is depleted of the proper nutritional foods it needs, it could drastically affect your physical and mental health in a myriad of ways,” says Dr. Carrie Lam, MD of Lam Coaching, based in California. According to Alissa Rumsey, a registered dietitian in New York City and founder of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness,
“A multivitamin can’t take the place of eating a variety of foods and food groups.” Despite what some ads may imply, a multivitamin won’t magically turn you into an energetic superhero and an oral vitamin for skin is not an instant fix for your complexion concerns. What it can do, though, is cover for deficiencies in your diet says, Gina Keatley, a certified dietitian-nutritionist practising in New York City.
Like Hippocrates stated that “Nature itself is the best physician,” I also believe so much in trying to get all vitamins from our foods instead of through medicines. A balanced, varied diet that contains plenty of fruits and vegetables should be the primary source of vitamins. Supplements cannot take the place of a healthy diet. However, there may be other life factors like pregnancy or you are trying to get pregnant, menopause, being age 50 or older, having a poor appetite or trouble getting nutritious foods, being on a diet that excludes some entire food groups and chronic health conditions that make supplementation necessary. At such points, your doctor is in the best position to determine the supplementation you need.
With today’s modern diet, there are some nutrients that are hard to get enough of in foods. Still, you can change the narrative by making sure you are eating a healthy, balanced diet made up of a variety of whole foods, proteins, leafy greens, fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains. Like Dr C Pfeiffer once said that “for every drug that benefits a patient, there is a natural substance that can achieve the same effect, the emphasis in this series will be on food sources of vitamins not on multivitamins.
It is unlikely that over-consumption of vitamins occurs with food intake but it can happen if you take too many supplements. Do not go overboard with supplements.
Sometimes a hard toothbrush can cause bleeding and painful gums, but when that is not the case, I always get the signals that my body is sending and I increase my intake of vitamin C rich foods. Our body give signals to indicate deficiencies of these vitamins, let us always listen to it.
Once again, I wish you a happy and prosperous new year.